Nighthawks, Usherettes, and Shapely Secretaries: A New York Movie by Edward Hopper
When I was 15 I used to walk from Washington Square North across Sixth Avenue and down Greenwich Avenue for a midnight snack at a cozy little White Tower hamburger joint located where Greenwich meets 7th Avenue South and 11th Street. Quoted in Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (Rizzoli 2007), the artist says the setting of his most famous work, Nighthawks (1942), was “suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” At least half a dozen websites have been dedicated to determining the identity and actual location of the place Hopper’s referring to, the consensus being that it can’t be found. However, the only actual late-night eatery shown to have occupied the triangle formed by that three-way intersection is the humble White Tower (you can see it in various online photos including the one on shadeone.com/nighthawks); while the tiny building — it looks like a white toy next to a toy gas station — has little in common with the spacious, streamlined structure in the painting, it sits in the only locale that could have accomodated the Flatiron shape of Hopper’s nighthawk’s cafe.
All I know is that I was enjoying those little melt-in-your-mouth hamburgers on the piece of Manhattan geographically aligned with one of the landmarks of 20th century art, the iconic image that has been alluded to, celebrated, and improvised upon by generations of artists, writers, filmmakers, and poets. It’s also nice to know that Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was still alive and well and painting at the time in a studio on the other end of the block at 3 Washington Square North.
Nighthawks has to be seen in person to be truly appreciated. Of course this is true of just about any accomplished work of art, but the only way to comprehend the magnitude of this painting is to stand in front of it. You can see Nighthawks, along with other key works like New York Movie (1939) and Office at Night (1940), in the Whitney Museum’s “Hopper Drawing,” which is billed as “the first major museum exhibition to focus on the drawings and creative process of Edward Hopper.” Organized by curator of drawings Carter Foster, the exhibit will be on view through October 6.
The Power of the Painting
It’s a tribute to the power of Nighthawks that admirers have gone to such lengths to determine the real-world model and location of a place that is so obviously a composite developed in the artist’s imagination. One feature that strikes you when you stand before it is the color and smoothness and sweep of the pale green sidewalk comprising almost half the painting. It’s safe to say that you will not find pavement that immaculate nor of such a subtle shade of green anywhere on the island of Manhattan or indeed anywhere this side of The Land of Oz. The countertop in this extraordinarily roomy “coffee stand” is, according to the notes in the artist’s ledger, made of “cherry wood” rather than the standard greasy spoon formica. Also painted as if they were things of rare worth are the sugar sifters, salt and pepper shakers and napkin holders, and, noted in the ledger under “bright items,” two “metal tanks” more familiarly known as coffee urns.
As for the nighthawks of the title, there’s the man with his back to us, hunched over the counter, described in the ledger as a “figure dark sinister.” Faces lit with a caffeinated intensity, the man and woman, posed for by Hopper (using a mirror) and his wife, are described in the ledger’s shorthand: “night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette,” the brunette in “red blouse” looks venal and lively compared to Hopper’s generally passive, lost, spaced-out females; this one’s wide awake and hungry for action, ready to take a bite out of the counter man once she finishes her sandwich. The dark figure whose face is hidden could pass for (and might even have been inspired by) one of the title characters in Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 story, “The Killers.” An admirer of Hemingway, Hopper actually wrote a letter to Scribners Magazine praising the story in contrast to “the vast sea of sugar coated mush that makes up most of our fiction.”
As Hemingway does in “The Killers,” Hopper presents a situation and some characters and leaves it to us to imagine the rest. The hypnotic image inspired a poem by Joyce Carol Oates and five different dramatizations in a special issue of Der Spiegel; has surfaced as a favored setting in The Simpsons; in a film-within-a-film in Wim Wenders’s End of Violence; and in a parody, Nighthawks Revisited, by Red Grooms, who calls himself “a jester to the great sage” in the National Gallery Hopper documentary narrated by Steve Martin.
The timing of Nighthawks is a story in itself. Unfazed by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and FDR’s declaration of war, Hopper remained tenaciously focused on the immense canvas while his wife Jo feared “the very likely prospect of being bombed” (“we live right under glass sky-lights and a roof that leaks whenever it rains”). Jo wasn’t alone. Hopper’s gallery thought he should take the precaution of moving some of his paintings to a storehouse for safekeeping. Clearly the artist knew he was on to something special. “E. doesn’t want me even in the studio,” Jo complained. “I haven’t gone thru even for things I want in the kitchen.”
According to Gail Levin’s biography, Jo was “short, open, gregarious, sociable, and liberal” while Hopper was “tall, secretive, shy, quiet, introspective, and conservative.” Both were in their early forties when they married in 1924. A painter of real gifts, Jo was Hopper’s model and his advocate, but she resented the fact that her career was secondary to his. Of all her “roles,” the most warmly, sympathetically, and interestingly rendered was as the blond usherette in New York Movie.
At the Movies
Ask any film buff about Hopper’s influence on film noir and they will likely start talking about Nighthawks. Bring up film in general and they will mention New York Movie. Hopper was an ardent filmgoer. At the time of the painting, while there had been only intimations of noir like 1940’s The Stranger on the Third Floor (where someone is murdered in a diner), Hopper had seen and absorbed gangster flicks like Scarface (1932), Public Enemy (1930), Little Caesar (1931), and Bullets or Ballots (1936). Meanwhile he’d also discovered an appealing subject in moviehouse interiors like the one in New York Movie, which Hopper researched by taking his sketchbook to Times Square theatres like the Globe, Republic, Strand, and his primary model the Palace. Before it was finished, New York Movie required 54 drawings, more than any other painting in his career.
For the thoughtful usherette standing in an alcove out of view of the screen, Hopper posed his wife in slacks in a lighted corner of the studio. As he’d done with the diner in Nighthawks, Hopper added a touch of elegance that in this case makes the word “usherette” seem too workaday for the pensive blonde in the lustrous blue uniform and the stylish shoes (in one of the drawings, he pencils in “flesh-colored feet in black sandals”). Though Jo was in her mid-fifties at the time, Hopper painted her as a young woman in her twenties. Like the female in Nighthawks, the usherette is a departure from the lonely, abstracted, lost-looking individuals Hopper customarily depicted. There’s a benignly encompassing warmth about this person, enhanced by the yellow light all around her, that tempts you to guess at her thoughts. She may only be listening to voices on the soundtrack of the film, but what makes her so sympathetic and interesting is that you can feel the intelligent presence of the artist’s wife. She was a painter, too, remember, who might well be thinking, as she holds the pose, that she should be doing her own work. Or she might be pondering a new project as she stands there locked into the image of the thinker, chin propped on hand, her time and her art at the mercy of her artist husband. The positive side of the tension that makes her so much worthier of our notice than even the beautifully crafted interior of the theatre is in what we know to be her absolute devotion to Hopper’s work, her confidence in its greatness and superiority to her own, in spite of her sense of herself as an artist, an intelligence, a creative individual in her own right.
In the Office
In Office at Night, the curvaceous secretary standing by the filing cabinet offers yet another alternative to Hopper’s less forthright females and once again, the 20-something brunette secretary is being impersonated by a 50-something Josephine Hopper in a form-fitting skirt that reveals a shapely hip and leg that you know will eventually catch the eye of her boss, who is seated at his desk intently reading a letter. Of all the stories to develop from Hopper’s images, this would be the oldest, easiest, and most obvious to imagine. A better story, however, concerns the painter and his wife, who writes in her journal, of the young woman “fishing in a filing cabinet” that “I’m to pose for … tonight in a tight skirt — short to show legs. Nice that I have good legs and up and coming stockings.” A few days later Hopper is still working on Office at Night when a Viennese waltz comes over the radio. Edward “left the easel and came to waltz with me — and did very nicely …. The music got E. and about he went. He’s amazingly light on his feet when he dances.”